She loved us, my four siblings and me, fiercely and unwaveringly as her life slid along peaks and valleys. At times she kept us and at times we became her keepers. She left us too early. It's been almost six years and not a day I fail to mourn the loss of all she still had to say and to rejoice in the blind and extraordinary luck of having been born her daughter. Gardenias were her favorite flowers. She laughed hard and she cried hard. She loved intensely and was loved back. She had unique aesthetics and style. She was ahead of her time and steeped into it. She respected the sacred and enjoyed the profane. She made mistakes and taught invaluable lessons. Her spirit was full of contradiction and her heart was steady.
Her hand in the kitchen was unpredictable and always right. She rarely bowed to the constraints of a recipe. Around a square country table, by a fire place and a window upholstered by ivy, she gifted us some of her best, lovingly attempting at our girths.
Magic was always boiling in a pot, drying on a rack, baking in the oven, resting in the refrigerator. Visions of her hands harvesting, frying, braising, gathering, preserving marked the seasons of childhood.
When I watch my own hands at work, I like to think that some of my mother's gifts are still here, in my very own kitchen, for my very own child.
La panzanella più buona del mondo~The world's best summer bread salad (recipe adapted for my California kitchen from the memories of my mom's legendary panzanella)
1/2 loaf stale crusty country bread salt and pepper to taste 3 ripe tomatoes 1/2 red onion 1 cup large basil leaves 1 small cucumber (optional) 2 handfuls arugula or other wild salad red wine vinegar olive oil
Cut the bread in chunks and wet them with cold water. Mom always said the trick to a good panzanella is how one treats the bread. Do not completely soak, rather wet gently, in a small quantity of water coming not more that half way up the sides of your bread chunks.
Also, the older the bread, the longer water will take to moisten all the way to the center. So while a a very stale loaf might sit in water for a bit, a fresher one might only need a quick rinse under a running faucet and no soaking at all.
Whatever the case, be sure that, once well moistened, your bread of choice is squeezed until no more water drips out of it no matter how hard you wring. Place in a bowl, season with salt and pepper to taste, drizzle with some vinegar to where it suits your buds and set aside.
Cut the tomatoes in fairly skinny wedges. Slice the onion in paper thin half moons. Tear the basil leaves with your hands. Slice the cucumber quite thinly (I much prefer cucumber in the dish, though sometimes my mother used red bell pepper instead. You can also entirely omit one or the other).
Add the tomatoes, onions, basil, cucumber and arugula to the bread chunks. Toss all the ingredients well and dress with a generous amount of olive oil. Toss some more and taste to ensure the balance of salt, vinegar and oil is to your liking. Adjust as needed.
- Panzanella is even more delicious the day after, just spruce up with some fresh greens and refresh with a drizzle of olive oil
- For slicing the onion and cucumber, the ideal tool is a mandolin